The deserved success of Shaun Usher’s marvellous anthology Letters of Note has inspired several imitators, and Caroline Atkins’s sparkling collection makes an ideal companion volume. Here are missives both literary and otherwise, all of them destined never to be read by their intended recipients. Some are grave, some are tender; some are funny, several are vengeful or self-justifying. It’s a great idea for a book.
A letter which goes missing is of course a standard tragedy-inducing device in fiction. Romeo could have lived had he received Juliet’s letter; but perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is poor Tess Durbeyfield’s to Angel Clare. Never was a flap of carpet responsible for so much misery. Atkins includes some terribly sad real-life letters too: Captain Scott’s, addressed ‘To my widow’, and Van Gogh’s penultimate letter to his sainted brother, as well as a couple between doomed first world war sweethearts.
It’s not all sorrow and gloom, by any means. Several of the letters are hilarious, including Malcolm Bradbury’s response to a woman who’d sent him a huge pile of her unpublished novels. He tells her that he’s unable to lift her weighty manuscripts, on doctor’s orders, since ‘just the other day I strained my back, carrying about some royalty statements’. It goes on in the same vein. Here too is the letter devised by the characters in the TV comedy show The Young Ones, asking for an extension of overdraft facilities. Having decided that ‘Dear’ is too formal, and having agreed that anyone who works for a bank is politically suspect, they hap upon the opening ‘Darling Fascist Bullyboy, give me some more money.’ My favourite, though, is from Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers. Tormented by resentment of his sexually successful father, our hero sits down to pour out his soul to the older man:
Forty minutes later I had written:
This has not been an easy letter to write.
It would be fair to say that real people are not necessarily shown to their best advantage here. There’s generally a good reason that a letter goes unposted, namely that the writer thinks better of it on re-reading. What seems droll or romantic one day — or, more probably, one night — can seem foolish in the cold sober light of the next morning. Hence Virginia Woolf’s long riposte to a review by Arnold Bennett. How I hate Virginia Woolf! All those semicolons, the ghastly snobbery and archness, the anti-Semitism... Her letter is meant to be an ironic defence of her position as an unabashed highbrow, but comes across as heavy-handed, self-regarding and prolix.
Ernest Hemingway isn’t much better. In a truculent letter to Senator Joseph McCarthy, he calls him ‘kid’ and invites him to Cuba for a fist-fight. Katherine Mansfield’s 1916 reply to a young soldier friend who has declared his love to her is not at all kind. Furthermore, it ill behoves her to complain that she has no roast dinner, but only eggs and oranges, when he’s at the front (and soon to be killed at Arras). But perhaps she can be forgiven since she includes this lovely sentence: ‘There’s a little bird on a tree outside this window not so much singing as sharpening a note.’ And of course she didn’t send the letter, so we must hope that his feelings were spared.
Rambling and often drunken love letters begging for reconciliation never help. The last thing someone who has gone off you wants is pages of self-pity and ardour. It may be that the advent of the text message has brought the unintended benefit of saving the spurned the humiliation of penning such letters, since the form doesn’t lend itself to endless tear-stained pages. Or could it be that the immediacy of pressing a button is too great a temptation for the broken-hearted to resist? In any case, there is a long, shining example of this unfortunate category in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Only Oscar Wilde is dignified in the form: ‘There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us.’
What a Hazard a Letter Is is lively and well researched, and includes many examples I’d never come across before. But it’s best taken in small doses. Otherwise, the cumulative effect is rather like going to a cocktail party and eating lots of nibbles, but going home without any supper.